Fort Worth — Some of the most well-known musicians throughout history chose not to take students, or very few, while others gave up continuing with a concert career to devote all their time passing on what they know to the next generation. So it was with some surprise to learn that the Chamber Music Society of Worth would present clarinetist Julian Milkis, who was the only pupil of Benjamin David “Benny” Goodman.
Goodman was legendary and he singlehandedly, through commissions and public performances, raised the clarinet to the exalted concert instrument it is today. Thus, it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that he didn’t pass on all of this to a gaggle of students.
The first half of the concert was a collection of pop and jazz songs arranged for clarinet and string quartet by some famous Hollywood arrangers, including Robert Russell Bennett and Dick Hyman. Goodman was a pop and jazz artist whose forays into classical music made him one of the first of what we now call “crossover artists.” So why not do the same here? Besides, for the classical purists, the promise of hearing a definitive masterpiece—Brahms’ wondrous Clarinet Quintet and an intriguing work by the unjustly ignored Alan Schulman—was plenty of promise to fill the auditorium at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
While Goodman is widely known as the “King of Swing,” his classical music credits are not as well known, which is another surprise considering how important he was to the instrument in that regard. He commissioned concerti from quite a list of composers: Belá Bartók, Aaron Copland, Malcolm Arnold and Leonard Bernstein, to name a few. To boot, Goodman’s combination of influences went back and forth. Many historians feel that it was the infusion of classical music’s 1930s-40s experimentation into advanced harmonic concepts, adopted into swing, that enabled jazz and cool jazz to develop.
With all this in mind, the first piece on the program followed none of this logic. It was a new piece by Alexander Goldstein (b. 1948) called Trio on the Roof, based on tunes from the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick blockbuster musical Fiddler on the Roof. Goldstein, who was in attendance, is best known as a film composer and musical advisor to the sports world (mostly figure skating). The “trio” of the title was comprised of violinist and CMSFW Artistic Director Gary Levinson, pianist Baya Kakouberi and guest artist Milklis on clarinet.
In his program note, Goldstein said that he wanted to view this music from 1964 through the “prism of changing times,” but his take on four songs from the show seemed to look backwards and well as forward. Fortunately, he kept the original virtuoso Klezmer feel for the clarinet’s music and Milkis established himself as a major player right from the start. True to his goal, Goldstein added much from the classical world of the 20th century, such as cross rhythms, complex counterpoint and harmonies.
It was all quite exciting and set us up for the pop arrangements that filled out the first half, all of which required a string quartet. That quartet was made up of Levinson and violinist Felix Olschofka, violist Richard Young and cellist Brinton Averil Smith.
All of the arrangements were by different composers—many of them familiar to pop concert attendees. These variations in approach were the most interesting aspects of the music that followed. Bennett created a finely crafted medley of tunes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Hyman took on Eubie Blake, but was also represented by an original composition “Clarinata,” which was quite a romp. Gershwin’s “Walking the Dog” brought the first half to a close with a jaunty arrangement by Stanley Silverman.
Alan Shulman’s music opened the second half of this program. His Rendezvous for Clarinet and String Quartet was written for Goodman and was performed on live radio in 1946. The composer creates an amalgamation of musical styles, from his highly chromatic opening, reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, to the jazz harmonies he introduces when the clarinet enters. The piece was replete with counterpoint and complex rhythms and the sudden ending came far too soon for this listener.
Brahms came out of a self-imposed retirement to write his Clarinet Quintet. He heard clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld play, and like Goodman a generation later, showed composers what this highly expressive and agile instrument could do. Perhaps Brahms didn’t trust quite what future clarinetists would be like—so he added “or Viola” to the instrumentation.
In this piece, unlike the rest of the program, there isn’t a whiff of whimsy or even a forerunner of something jaunty. On the contrary, Brahms was writing in the full autumnal splendor of a master in complete command of his art. All is reflective and sedate in this piece, with an overlay of melancholy and Sehnsucht (an untranslatable German word that basically means bummed by what might have been).
But this performance had something else; something that a touring group cannot achieve. All five of the players were soon caught up in the performance and that mutual feeling of “wow this is really happening guys” was conveyed to the audience, making us a part of it as well.